Title: Kathleen O’Connor of Paris
Author: Amanda Curtain
Published: 29th October 2018
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Genres: Non Fiction, Biography, Memoir
Rating: 4.5 stars
What does it mean to live a life in pursuit of art?
In 1906, Kathleen O’Connor left conservative Perth, where her famous father’s life had ended in tragedy. She had her sights set on a career in thrilling, bohemian Paris. More than a century later, novelist Amanda Curtin faces her own questions, of life and of art, as she embarks on a journey in Kate’s footsteps.
Part biography, part travel narrative, this is the story of an artist in a foreign land who, with limited resources and despite the impacts of war and loss, worked and exhibited in Paris for over forty years. Kate’s distinctive figure paintings, portraits and still lifes, highly prized today, form an inseparable part of the telling.
Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is a stunning and enlightening tribute to one of Australia’s most accomplished but little known artists, Kathleen O’Connor. Inspired by the fanciful but well discussed story of an artist who tossed her artwork into the Indian Ocean as she couldn’t afford the duty tax imposed on her own work, accomplished West Australian author brings to life the formidable Kathleen O’Connor, an artist and trailblazer of the last century.
It is hard to pin down the exact genre this book falls into, which makes for a refreshing change! Kathleen O’Connor of Paris has been shelved as a biographical, travel based art history narrative. It knows no bounds, criss crossing to different genres as author Amanda Curtain painstakingly details Kathleen’s life as a decorated artist. Kathleen’s life is rich and fulfilling. She moved to New Zealand as a young child, then onto Perth, followed by a long stint in Paris, followed by time in Britain. Through the moments of despair, triumphs, tragedies, Kathleen forged ahead with her career as a respected artist. Following ten steps behind in this re-imagined life history of Kathleen O’Connor is author Amanda Curtain. Curtain’s passion for the life and art of Kathleen O’Connor is a shining beacon, offering a flare of information on Kathleen. Curtain details Kathleen’s upbringing, to her bold move to Paris, the impact of war and Kathleen’s agonising move back to Perth before her death in 1968. This is a pensive book but it opens Kathleen O’Connor’s world up to the unsuspecting reader, with many surprising revelations. A fitting salute to a woman who helped to prove that it is possible to achieve artistic recognition.
Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is a 2018 publication from respected WA based publisher, Fremantle Press. I have a weakness for Paris and its attached art history, so this book held immediate appeal. I also hold much respect for West Australian author Amanda Curtain, her name is well known around the WA based writing circuit, so Kathleen O’Connor of Paris went to the top of my reading pile. I was overjoyed to be able to hear the author of this accomplished book speak in person about her research, writing process and vignettes on the composition of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris. It certainly added to my affection for this title.
When a friend asked me about this title, I had a hard time initially slotting the book in a particular genre. It is definitely a work of non fiction, but it contains threads that read like biography, a travel guide and an art history piece. The good thing about Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is that it transcends being boxed or shelved in a particular genre and I respected this very much. The possibilities are endless, as the experience this book offers the reader through the simple of act sitting down to read this is a testament to one of Australian most hardworking, but little recognised artists.
The most surprising aspect of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is that I did not make the connection between Kathleen, the central figure of the book and her very famous father, a big historical icon of Western Australia, CY O’Connor. I feel rather well versed in CY O’Connor and his achievements, which was aided by my interest in local history at school. However, I admit to knowing very little about his family and the impact his legacy had on the family he left behind when he tragically shot himself on a local beach here in Perth. Gaining an understanding of Kathleen’s upbringing and family history, as well as the impact of the death on her family had on the O’Connor’s, helps the reader to better understand Kathleen’s line of thinking and the decisions she made in her life. Kathleen’s life sprawls in many directions, but Curtain has a handle on these branches and offshoots in every single moment of her book.
Much like one of my favourite films Midnight in Paris, I felt like I had stepped in a cab and taken a moonlight stroll into one of the most iconic and celebrated eras of the art world in Paris. As soon as Kathleen makes the move from Perth to Paris in 1906, we are taken on journey into the bohemian world of artists, sculptors, writers, poets and other well regarded artistic figures of the last century. Curtain provides a comprehensive history of the two world wars and the impact they had on Kathleen’s life. She carefully retraces Kathleen’s steps, pointing out key moments that defined her career. There is no doubt that Kathleen had a turbulent time in Paris, although her heart clearly belonged to the city of lights, she struggled financially and professionally to survive. Curtain peppers moments of elation and success with bitter sadness. My shoulders drooped and a feeling of melancholy washed over me as I took a trip back to Perth with Kathleen as she was forced to return home, penniless. For those who are interested further in Kathleen’s life, Curtain penned a short story titled ‘Paris bled into the Ocean’. This provides an account of Kathleen’s supposed disposal of her art work in the Indian Ocean when it become apparent that she would be unable to pay the duty imposed on her to keep her paintings. It is a sad tale, which cannot fully be sustained as correct, but it is deeply intriguing nonetheless.
Amanda Curtain provides her own spin on this iconic artist, a figure she clearly holds in high regard. Curtain’s dedication to her field of research cannot be disputed. I know from her deeply informative author talk that she spent hours, day after day, pouring laboriously over newspaper articles, diaries, tags, items and art work. This feeds into her book, which is told from the heart and from a huge depth of knowledge. Curtain’s dedication to her work extends as far as her willingness to completely immerse herself in Kathleen’s life. Curtain retraces Kathleen’s steps across the globe and offers a personal insight into areas such as her health conditions and mental state. It is absolutely fascinating, but I do recommend you set aside a good block of time, along with a clear head to absorb all Curtain has to offer.
Accompanying Kathleen O’Connor of Paris are extensive extra notes covering a list of her exhibitions, key works, footnotes, acknowledgments and an index. Photographs and a sample of artworks completed by Kathleen O’Connor are included throughout the text. This adds an extra experience to a decorated book on woman who today we celebrate as a revolutionary in the art world and she managed to conquer Paris.
Kathleen O’Connor of Paris by Amanda Curtain was published on 29th October 2018 by Fremantle Press. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, Amanda Curtain, visit here.
Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is book #154 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge